The East Carolina University football team defeated Gardner-Webb University by a score of 48-9 on Saturday inside Dowdy-Ficklen stadium.
Rushing was a glaring issue last week when ECU faced North Carolina State University in the season opener. By the end of the fourth quarter, the Pirates had logged just 41 yards on the ground and managed only six total points on two field goals by junior kicker Jake Verity.
After last week’s loss, head coach Mike Houston echoed the need to improve the run game.
“We’ve got to be able to do our job at the running back position and not just go down at the first hit,” Houston said earlier in the week. “We’ve got to be able to break contact and yards after contact are very important.”
That begins with junior running back Darius Pinnix Jr., the top back in Houston’s depth chart. Last week in Raleigh, Pinnix drew the start and was bottled up for just 23 yards on 11 carries but represented the Pirates’ leading rusher.
“Last week I ran for 2.1 yards, I averaged 2.1 yards. I know that’s not me and that’s really my fault,” Pinnix said after Saturday’s game against the Bulldogs. “There was some holes that I should have hit better, I should have made more people miss. Today, I came out there with a chip on my shoulder.”
In Dowdy-Ficklen on Saturday for their first home game of the season, the Pirates flipped the script and immediately began taking chunks out of the Bulldogs’ defense. On the first play from scrimmage, Pinnix matched his longest rush from a week ago with a nine-yard carry.
That carry opened an eight-play, 69-yard drive for ECU, one that ended a touchdown-drought that extended back to last season. A seven-yard rush by sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers finally broke the drought and put the home squad up 7-0 only four minutes into Saturday’s contest.
On that opening drive alone, the Pirates racked up 35 rushing yards, just six less than they recorded over four quarters against NC State. As the night wore on Houston’s game plan emerged, revealing a rush-heavy attack against Gardner-Webb.
“We wanted to be able to run the football effectively early in the game, take control of the ball game,” Houston said after the contest. “We wanted to try to force them to throw the ball and I thought we were able to do that.”
At the conclusion of the first quarter, ECU had built a comfortable 17-0 lead on the back of two rushing touchdowns, one by Ahlers and one by Pinnix. With the Pirates’ defense keeping GWU in-check, the offense continued racking up yards on the ground.
A 13-yard touchdown rush by Pinnix mid-way through the second quarter put ECU up 24-7 and capped a 10-play, 87-yard drive. That score, which was made possible by huge holes up front by the offensive line, was helped along by Ahlers who ripped off 21-yard rush of his own.
All night long, huge holes were present for ECU rushers to hit. By halftime, the Pirates had already amassed 196 rushing yards and 325 total yards, compared to Gardner-Webb’s 87.
Twice, ECU’s offense was set-up by their defense. An interception by freshman defensive back Ja’Quan McMillian right before halftime allowed Ahlers to punch in a two-yard rush a pair of plays later. Another Gardner-Webb interception landed in the hands of sophomore defensive back Gerard Stringer on the Bulldogs’ opening possession of the second half.
That play also contributed to a Pirate score. This time it was through the air in the form of a 20-yard touchdown pass from Ahlers to sophomore wide receiver Blake Proehl that made the score 38-7 in favor of the home team.
“Obviously a lot more enjoyable night tonight than last Saturday,” Houston said after the game. “You get in these ball games, your home opener and have all these visions of how it’s supposed to go and it’s just, it’s very refreshing when your team comes out and plays the way you know they can.”
For good measure, junior backup quarterback Reid Herring scored from 10 yards out late in the fourth quarter, capping the scoring at 48-9. Without a long Gardner-Webb drive early in the second quarter and a safety by their defense, ECU may have had a shot at a shut-out.
Alas, the Pirates were forced to settle with a 39-point victory, made possible by some gaudy rushing totals.
In the end, Pinnix set new career highs with 21 rushes and 134 yards. He added a pair of rushing touchdowns and logged 38 receiving yards on three catches. Freshman running back Demetrius Mauney, who isn’t even listed on the two-deep depth chart, entered the game in relief of Pinnix with the Pirates ahead by multiple scores.
He racked up 13 carries and 107 yards, giving the Pirates two 100-yard rushers with Ahlers right behind them with 78. As a team, ECU logged 365 yards on the ground for the first time since Nov. 17, 2018 against the University of Connecticut. Additionally, the Pirates logged five rushing touchdowns for the first time since Sept. 20, 2014 against the University of North Carolina.
“I thought our guys really played hard and I thought we played pretty physical upfront. I thought that our backs did a much better job this week with yards after contact,” Houston said. “I thought that we had a lot of energy, both sides of the ball.”
Ahlers and the passing game added 209 yards through the air on 19 completions as Proehl led the receiving corps with 68 yards on seven catches.
More than just representing the first win of the season, Saturday’s victory is the first in the Houston-era at ECU.
“Being able to get the season opening win in Dowdy-Ficklen stadium with the opening of Townebank Tower is a pretty special night,” Houston said. “Certainly you felt the energy in the stands from our fans. That’s the thing I’ve been looking most forward to, is just to feel that passion and that enthusiasm for our program that the Pirates fans have.”
Houston will have to wait two weeks to feel that passion again as the Pirates hit the road for their next contest. That comes against the United States Naval Academy on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.